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 Birdman (2014)

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Birdman (2014)   Thu Jan 29, 2015 11:02 pm

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu started off his career as a radio presenter in Mexico, before graduating into making short films and adverts. However, in 2000, he finally broke through into feature films with his debut Amores perros (2000), which was an anthology of 3 stories which focused on the dark side of human nature. It would put Iñárritu on the map as a talent to watch out for, and Amores perros would get an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Following the success of Amores perros, Hollywood came calling, and Iñárritu went Stateside with 21 Grams (2003), a dark drama told in non-linear fashion all interconnected with one single, tragic event. Iñárritu would revisit the theme of interconnecting events with Babel (2006), filmed in America, Mexico, Morocco and Japan, The third film in Iñárritu's Death Trilogy, it again focused on the consequences of a single event across 4 narratives, both directly and indirectly. It would be 4 years before Iñárritu directed again, but he returned with Biutiful (2010), another dark meditation on death and mortality set in Barcelona, and how we deal with multiple tragedies happening in a short space of time. For his 5th film, Iñárritu decided to go one step further, it's both unlike and like his previous films, it has similarities with his early work as he's again dealing with the dark side of the human psyche. But unlike his previous films, it's a comedy, a black comedy at that, which also touches on fantasies and a bit of the supernatural, and it's also a meditation on criticism and the wanting to be accepted. But to make it extra difficult, Iñárritu has filmed it to make the entire film look like it was filmed in one long take. Birdman is an unconventional character study with some brilliant performances throughout, and it's a bloody technical marvel as well.

It begins with washed up Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who 2 decades before won acclaim for playing superhero Birdman, has gambled his reputation and everything he has on giving his career a boost by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's 1981 short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'. The production is a nightmare, Riggan's original co-star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is injured during production, but Riggan didn't care much for him anyways. As a replacement, he's able to get top actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to replace Ralph, however Mike proves to be an even bigger nightmare as he's a demanding and explosive method actor, and Riggan has remortgaged his house to get Mike in the show, which is a headache for him and his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis). Another headache for Riggan is that the production stars his current girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and his former girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts). Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is a recovering drug addict, is a production assistant on the show. But, the number one problem is that Riggan has been plagued by the voice of Birdman, telling Riggan that he's worthless and that what he's doing on Broadway is all for nothing, and Riggan seems to get into his head that he can levitate and he has the power of telekinesis. But, after a prickly encounter with snooty Broadway critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) who seems hellbent on destroying the play and Riggan's reputation, it hasn't helped that Mike's volatile temper and shocking behaviour is ruining the previews, but Riggan won't give in.

Iñárritu has structured a very original and cleverly made character piece, it's original as it is, but they way it's shot is the biggest weapon in the film's arsenal. It's central plot about backstage drama may have been seen before in other films, but here, Iñárritu gives that well worn cliche an original spin by also focusing on the inexplicable delusions and (possibly) real powers it's main character has. But, if the film will be remembered for anything, it's the cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, already riding high after his groundbreaking camerawork for Gravity (2013), some parts of which was made to look like one continuous take, here Lubezki goes one step further. He and Iñárritu filmed it in long takes, with the actors doing up to 15 pages at any one time, and the edits are usually visible or invisible. and the film is structured to look like a long take, plus there's some unbelievable shots, such as in front of dressing room mirrors, which will leave you thinking "How the hell was that filmed!?" Mirrors can be a thorn in the side for some directors and cinematographers, but a little techical trickery goes a long way. What's even more amazing is that the film was shot in a meagre 30 days, most of it in the St. James Theatre in New York. But from the way the film is structured and put together, you'd believe that it took longer to film, but it's an experiment in filmmaking and storytelling which works wonders and looks great on screen. The film is also topped off by a brilliant drum tinged score by Antonio Sánchez, which seems to reflect Riggan's already fractured and delicate mood.

For Birdman, Iñárritu decided to cast a former superhero actor as the tormented Riggan, Michael Keaton. Renowned for being Batman for Tim Burton twice, but underrated for his turns in Pacific Heights (1990), The Paper (1994) and Multiplicity (1996)), Keaton is on the cusp of a comeback with this. He's perfect for the film, as Keaton's career never really reached the heights that it should have, especially after he left Batman. Birdman showcases what a good actor he is, and Iñárritu pushes Keaton to the limit, as it's an intense performance, especially in the last third of the film, but Keaton's performance is a true powerhouse, he deserves all the accolades he's getting. Iñárritu is also blessed with some brilliant supporting actors, including Edward Norton, who nearly steals the film as the dangerously unpredictable Mike, who wants to go to the extremes and do things for real, when Riggan just wants him to "act". Norton brilliantly sends up overrated method actors who try and do things as realistically as possible and risk losing sight of the performance as a whole, and it's darkly hilarious to watch at times. Zach Galifianakis might be well known for silly comedic parts like in The Hangover films and The Campaign, but Iñárritu reigns it in, and Galifianakis gives a gentle, supportive and amusing performance as lawyer Jake, who is always left to pick up the pieces. Iñárritu reunites with Naomi Watts, who was in 21 Grams, for Riggan's ex-girlfriend who ends up being in the receiving end of Mike's "method acting", and not in a good way.





Birdman is a very unusual film, it's a meditation on the human psyche, but not as you know it. It's filmed like Hitchcock's Rope (1948) was, also a film made to look like one take. But, it's also a criticism on the nature of criticism itself, and the way some critics are snobbish towards certain actors, directors or writers. As critic Tabitha Dickinson tells Riggan in a bar at one point in the film, she hates it when Hollywood celebrities try to 'pretend' to be actors. It's a horrible misconception, everyone acts, directs and writes in different ways, good or bad, and no-one ever sets out to be a bad at anything, they just give it their best. You're either a natural talent or not. Whether Riggan was a good actor to begin with before he went into superhero stuff, we'll never know. As Oscar Wilde once said, critics are like eunuchs in the harem, they can see it being done, but they can't do it themselves, maybe that's why there is a fear of critics, as they can make or break a film or theatre piece. But at the end of the day, the film is more technical marvel at the end of the day, and you can read the film one way or another, but the technical feats the film pulls off is something astonishing, and it proves that you don't need millions of dollars of CGI to do something groundbreaking, sometimes the special effects can be invisible. But sometimes, acting and directing is the best special effect of all. As for Iñárritu, he's already working on his next film, The Revenant, a western made in Canada, and to make things difficult, shot in sequence, but again, a dark study of human emotions. That's Iñárritu for you.
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